When I married my husband, 14 years ago, I knew that there were food allergies in his family. I did not have any experience with food allergies in my family, so I did not think much of it. My sister in-law is allergic to tree nuts – among other things. “Got it” I thought. No nuts at family parties. I had a lot to learn. Did you know peanuts are not tree nuts? Ha! I didn’t at the time. Well, what I came to realize was that families with food allergies not only have to watch ingredients, they have a culture around food. They have their own beliefs, customs and traditions. Food may or may not be a major part of their culture and when it is, it takes great effort to be inclusive. Our extended family does get together a couple times a month for dinner, but we eat to be nourished and to spend time together. Eating is not always pleasure for our taste buds and that’s okay. I had to learn the difference between a tree nut and a peanut. I had to gain confidence that I could cook a meal or make a snack without 10+ allergens in it. It took time. It took patience. It still is a lot of work at a family party. But it is worth it. Here are a few things I wish I had known when I married into a family with food allergies:
- Have an open and honest conversation with your partner about the family food allergies/intolerances. It is okay to be honest and say “I don’t have any experience with your food allergy… can you tell me what you like to eat? Can you tell me other names the allergen goes by? What happens when you are near or eat that food?”
- Remember it is okay to eat/serve the same meals over and over. Especially when your family has more than a few allergens (ours has 10+) it is okay to rotate between the few safe meals you know everyone can eat. We frequently do a potato bar or pasta bar. It allows everyone to eat what they can without singling anyone out.
- Remember that family gatherings do not need to center around food. Family time is about spending time together. We sometimes get together to play games or watch a football game. Often, we bring snacks but the real highlight is being together.
- Be respectful. Don’t play the blame game. “This thanksgiving would be a lot better if it wasn’t gluten free!” A person with food allergies already feels the social, emotional, and psychological anxieties that come with food that has the potential to kill them. Don’t make it worse by adding your emotional deprivation. You will survive an allergy free meal every once in a while.
- Educate yourself on the food allergy. The more you know, the more confident you can become in participating in family get-togethers that involve food. Spend some time looking up alternate names for the allergen and search Pinterest for meal ideas. Understand that food allergies are life threatening, and not just a fad.
- Understand the symptoms. Especially if you will be taking care of children (nieces, nephews, grand-kids, etc.) who have allergies, educate yourself on the symptoms. Ask a parent or someone who is familiar with that child’s reactions. Practice using an epi-pen (a practice one, or a real one on an orange). Practice will help lessen any insecurities you have.
- Realize you will have successes and failures. Make an allergen free meal/dish and share it with the family. Understand that you still may get lots of questions about how and what was used in the dish. And then you may feel like an idiot when you still used the allergen and didn’t know it (hopefully realizing it before consumption). Remember that people with food allergies have had struggles too. Try again another time. It will bring you closer to the family as they see your efforts to be accommodating.
Above all, try getting to know and enjoy your new extended family. Food allergies do not need to be scary or isolating. It is just one aspect of a person/family. There is so much more to get to know and appreciate about your new family.